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The Bahá’í Approach to Rural Development

Begin with the Village

Baha'i House of Worship Cambodia
The local Baha’i House of Worship in Battambang, Cambodia at sunrise

During the past two years, the global Bahá’í community has witnessed the dedication of the first two local Bahá’í Houses of Worship in the world—the first in Battambang, Cambodia, on 21 September 2017, and the second in Norte del Cauca, Colombia, on 22 July 2018. Thousands gathered in each location to celebrate the completion of these temples, signalling the emergence of an institution that will one day be constructed in every village and town in every country.

The House of Worship is the central edifice of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár (the Dawning-place of the Praise of God), a new development inaugurated by Bahá’u’lláh and described by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as one of the most vital institutions in the world. In addition to a temple welcoming people of all faiths, races, and ages to share in prayer and meditation, unencumbered by ritual, the temple complex will eventually include service-oriented dependencies dedicated to social, humanitarian, educational, and scientific pursuits.

Eight continental Bahá’í Houses of Worship have been constructed as Mother Temples for Africa, the Indian subcontinent, North, Central, and South America, Europe, Australia, and the Pacific. The announcement in 2012 of plans to build local Houses of Worship in Battambang, Norte del Cauca and three other areas, as well as the first two national Bahá’í temples, was extraordinary in a number of ways. One is that in a rapidly urbanizing world—city people outnumbered rural people for the first time in 2007—the first local and national temples will be constructed in countries with largely rural populations. The first two national temples will be built in Papua New Guinea (87% rural) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (57%). The local temples are planned for Cambodia (79%); Matunda-Soy in Kenya (74%); Tanna in Vanuatu (74%); and Bihar Sharif in India (67%). Colombia, with a majority urban population, is the exception, but Norte del Cauca is a largely rural region.

Siting the local Houses of Worship in these areas is by no means random. In each case, the spirit of worship and service integral to the institution is already evident: each community hosts multiple devotional gatherings open to all, and large numbers of children, youth, and adults are engaged in an educational process that builds capacity for service to humanity. Thus, the House of Worship is a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality already present in these rural communities.

In 1891, in one of His most important writings, the Tablet of Carmel, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh, expressed His longing to announce to every spot on the surface of the earth the glad tidings of His Revelation. Since then, His followers have made consistent efforts to take the Bahá’í teachings to all peoples, including those in the most remote rural areas. It has often been found that rural people are drawn to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh in large numbers and have been among the first to respond to their transformative influence and to put them into practice.

Why Rural?

The Bahá’í Faith was the first major religion to emerge in the modern period. Although the 19th and 20th centuries are characterized by non-agricultural industrialization and urbanization, the Bahá’í teachings on social and economic issues placed great importance on agriculture, farmers, and village life.

In the Tablet of the World, also revealed in 1891, Bahá’u’lláh outlined that which is conducive to the advancement of mankind and to the reconstruction of the world. He identified several principles that would contribute to achieving social order, including international cooperation and disarmament; a new ethos of universal fellowship, epitomized by the adoption of a common auxiliary language; the training and education of children; and agricultural development. Bahá’u’lláh stated that special regard must be paid to agriculture, as unquestionably it precedes the other principles in importance. Perhaps this is why Bahá’u’lláh also stated that agricultural work is identical with worship.

In keeping with this principle, Bahá’u’lláh’s son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who led the Bahá’í community after His Father’s passing in 1892, later stated that the fundamental basis of community is agriculture, that the peasant class and the agricultural class exceed other classes in the importance of their service, and that the farmer is the primary factor in the body politic. Given the importance placed on agriculture, attention to the needs and aspirations of rural populations has been a priority going back to the early history of the Bahá’í Faith, when Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá showered their love on farmers and villagers, offered them tangible support, and contributed significantly to the discourse on rural development.

While religions have always had an association with agriculture, the Bahá’í teachings on this topic are considerably more elaborate than those of most previous faiths. Why would the Founder of the first modern religion place so much emphasis on agriculture?

In the time of Bahá’u’lláh, farmers comprised the vast majority of the world’s population. In 1875, 91% of the global population lived in rural areas, but a major shift was already underway: in 1800, 5% of the population was urban; by 1900, the urban share of population grew 2.6 times, to 13.3%. In industrializing areas such as Europe, the shift was more dramatic, from 7.3% urban in 1800 to 26.1% in 1900. Citification was picking up steam: humanity was 30% urban by 1950, 50% urban for the first time in 2007, and is 55% urban today. By 2050, a 66% urbanized population is projected.

We are migrating to cities en masse; however, 3.4 billion people still live in rural areas. And the statistics obscure the nature of urbanization: Close to half of the world’s urban population lives in towns and small cities. Many of these towns retain strong rural connections and are populated by people connected to agriculture.

While places like North America now have a tiny farm population living on large mechanized farms, throughout much of the world, especially Asia and Africa, smallholders produce most of the food on farms averaging one to two hectares in size.

There are some 500 million farms worldwide, 200 million pastoralists, and an estimated 450 million farm laborers, many working in the plantation sector. In addition, large numbers of casual and temporary workers are engaged by small and large growers. Roughly one third of humanity, some 2.5 billion farmers and their families, derive their livelihoods from agriculture; thus, farmers remain the largest single occupational group. Rural people also work in forestry and fisheries. The International Labour Organization reports that as many as 1.75 billion people derive at least some of their subsistence or income from forests, including 60 million Indigenous people who depend on natural forests for their livelihoods. Another 58 million people are engaged in fisheries and aquaculture. It should also be noted that as many as 800 million people are involved in urban and peri-urban food production.

Today, we speak of the consumer or information or post-industrial economy, giving the impression that the global economic order is decoupling from traditional resources extracted from the hinterlands. In fact, the consumption of practically every renewable and non-renewable resource is rising. Agricultural ecosystems cover nearly 40% of the terrestrial surface of the Earth. Human beings, one of an estimated 8.7 million species that cohabit the planet, now use 20% of Earth’s Net Primary Production (the total plant material produced) on land. Consequently, rural producers remain critically important players in the global economy.

Urban and rural populations are mutually dependent. In fact, as the number of rural producers decreases as a portion of the total population, their relative importance increases. Rural people are largely responsible for meeting the rapidly expanding urban demand for food, including fish, natural fibres, and forest products. Importantly, they are also increasingly important as providers of a wide range of essential ecological services associated with the management of soil, watersheds, forests, and fisheries.

Despite their essential services to society, the situation of rural people is often precarious. The historian Eric Hobsbaum points out, for instance, the anomaly that on the whole, the countries with the highest percentage of agricultural population are the ones which have difficulties in feeding themselves, while the world’s food surpluses come, on the whole, from a relatively tiny population in a few advanced countries.

A vast majority of the global poor live in rural areas—half in Sub-Saharan Africa—and more than half are under 18 years of age. The hunger that these people experience is a consequence of poverty, and while the causes of poverty are complex, they are often associated with power dynamics that marginalize rural people.

Fortunately, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined over the past several decades. According to the most recent World Bank estimates, while about 35% of people lived below the extreme poverty income threshold of $1.90 a day in 1990, adjusted for inflation, that number is closer to 11% today. While this is a positive trend, rural poverty remains deeply entrenched and the situation of the rural poor remains tenuous. Simply moving above the threshold of $1.90, to $1.91 or to $2 or $3 a day in income does not solve the problem. The World Health Organization has reported that global hunger, which has tended downward along with extreme poverty, is rising again. In 2016, 815 million people, more than one in ten people, were chronically hungry.

For those who have been able to move out of poverty, progress is often temporary: economic shocks, food insecurity, and climate change threaten to rob them of hard-won gains. It becomes increasingly difficult to assist those remaining in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank, especially those in fragile contexts and remote areas. Access to good schools, healthcare, electricity, safe water, and other critical services remains elusive for many people, often determined by socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, geography, politics, and, increasingly, environmental and climate factors. We see, for instance, the recent dramatic rise in the number of social and environmental refugees—some 65 million people cut off from their communities and families, willing to risk their lives to find a more secure life.

All this points to the continued relevance of the Bahá’í teachings on agriculture and the importance of supporting rural people in their efforts to achieve a better life and to contribute to the just and sustainable world order envisioned by Bahá’u’lláh. Perhaps this is why ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his extensive discourse on the reorganization of society, stated that the transformation of economic systems must commence with the farmer and then be extended to the other classes.He said that the solution to the economic problem begins with the village, and when the village is reconstructed, then the cities will be also.

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